The Second Dose and Survivor’s Guilt

I have severe asthma and since the pandemic started I’ve been playing a game of “beat the clock” with coronavirus. Since no one knows how the virus will affect each individual, I have been terrified that my asthmatic ridden lungs wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’ve been hospitalized for pneumonia before and had walking pneumonia just 5 years ago. Knowing how much my lungs suck at being lungs (thanks John Green for coining that phrase in “Fault in our Stars“) I’ve been playing a game to see if I could get the vaccine before the virus got me. 

I’m so happy to report that because I’m a mental health counselor, the county in which I work vaccinated us, because we serve the direct public. Telehealth has been a great alternative for therapy in person, but it has also been a barrier for some of my clients. I received my first dose of the vaccine at the beginning of January and the second dose 3 weeks later. 

My immune system had a very strong reaction to the second vaccine. Besides the usual sore arm and flu-like symptoms others have experienced, I also had a swollen lymph node in my underarm of the same arm where I received the vaccination. It felt exactly like a clogged milk duct I got when nursing my last baby. My sister-in-law, who is a medical professional in a women’s clinic, said that this is such a common reaction that they have new recommendations delaying mammograms for the recently vaccinated. 

Both times I got my vaccine I had tears of gratitude in my eyes. I thanked the people at the county health department working tirelessly and long hours making sure we all got our vaccines. Mixed with my feelings of gratitude was an overwhelming feeling of survivor’s guilt. I couldn’t help but think of the 486,000 citizens of my country, the United States, and the 2.41 million people worldwide who lost their lives to this wretched disease. During the holidays I thought about all the family tables that had a family member, or many family members, who were missing because of this awful virus. 

My feelings of survivor’s guilt included wondering why am I so special that, so far, I am winning the race against Covid-19 and my beat the clock game.  I haven’t lost anyone close to me from this disease, although my anxiety has been sky high for the health of my father (my only living parent), my husband’s parents, and his grandparents. Although I almost lost a dear friend to Covid-19 on New Year’s Eve, by some miracle his life was spared. The doctors told him that people who come to the hospital with his stats are usually dead. 

Although I’m so incredibly humbled and grateful to get the vaccine, I was happy to wait in line behind healthcare workers, teachers, and the elderly. I had to be reminded several times by friends and family workers that I am a healthcare worker (mental health is health) and my asthma makes me especially high risk. Last week I resumed some in-person therapy and I was reminded about why I love this field and how much easier it is to practice in person than over my laptop. 

As more of the world is getting fully vaccinated, I finally feel a little light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a pin prick of light, but that little pin prick is so much better than the complete darkness I felt from mid-March to December 2020. I will have to work on my survivor’s guilt (and probably process it with my therapist) to know that as a child of God I am worthy of protection and health, and that even though my life is no more important than any others, choosing to be vaccinated and protect myself and others, actually honors the lives of those lost. 

Who knows how many lives this awful pandemic will claim. I know for me that there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of this worldwide and collective trauma and help to mitigate a tiny piece of it in my corner of the world and in my own field of influence.

The Washington Post published a list of names of people in the United States who have lost their live to Covid-19.


Risa has a Masters and Bachelors degree in Social Work. She is an Associate Therapist who has worked in child abuse prevention, adoption, and volunteers as a CASA . She is a mother of 4 and in her spare time she is a voracious reader, snarker, and subversive cross-stitcher.

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5 Responses

  1. Em says:

    I’m not yet vaccinated so I’m struggling more with vaccine envy. But I do know what you mean about wondering about luck and feeling somewhat guilty. At Christmas and New Years there was a lot of merchandise (ornaments, T-shirts etc.) with the motto “I survived 2020.” And it just felt grotesque because of course millions of people didn’t. I think the intent was more of the “I survived grad school” or “I survived an ultra-marathon” etc — to emphasize getting through something hard. But in this case with actual life on the line, bragging about survival felt tacky and thoughtless. And truly, there but for the grace of God go I. Have I been careful? Absolutely. But plenty of very careful diligently safe people still caught a highly infectious disease and died.

    Anyway. I think we will be reckoning with the psychological impact of these years for the rest of our lives. Like my grandma who lived through the depression and never tossed a bobby pin and cut her big mac in half to save the rest for the next day, or veterans who can’t watching films about the wars they survived. I don’t know exactly what those impacts will be, but I think we’re changed.

    • Risa says:

      I totally agree, Em. I think in 40 years my grandkids will say, “oh that’s just grandma’s [weird quirk]. She lived through the Covid.”

  2. Julia Woolley says:

    Thank you for helping others as a healthcare worker. My psychologist and meds have saved my life. Especially now, when things are so much harder because of Covid. Don’t feel guilty getting the vaccine. Feel grateful. You are needed. You are saving lives, too.

    • Risa says:

      Thank you for your kind reply, Julia. I have taken it to heart. I know I couldn’t have survived mentally this past year without my own therapist and being on the right brain health drugs.

  3. I am so happy for you that you were able to be vaccinated. I recently read some articles by medical ethicists who essentially said, If you are offered a vaccine, take it. Opting out helps no one.

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